IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability Social and cultural barriers

Social and cultural limits to adaptation can be related to the different ways in which people and groups experience, interpret and respond to climate change. Individuals and groups may have different risk tolerances as well as different preferences about adaptation measures, depending on their worldviews, values and beliefs. Conflicting understandings can impede adaptive actions. Differential power and access to decision makers may promote adaptive responses by some, while constraining them for others. Thomas and Twyman (2005) analysed natural-resource policies in southern Africa and showed that even so-called community-based interventions to reduce vulnerability create excluded groups without access to decision-making. In addition, diverse understandings and prioritisations of climate change issues across different social and cultural groups can limit adaptive responses (Ford and Smit, 2004).

Most analyses of adaptation propose that successful adaptations involve marginal changes to material circumstances rather than wholesale changes in location and development paths. A few studies have examined the need for and potential for migration, resettlement and relocation as an adaptive strategy, for example, but the cultural implications of large-scale migration are not well understood and could represent significant limits to adaptation. Box 17.8 presents evidence that demonstrates that, while relocation and migration have been used as adaptation strategies in the past, there are often large social costs associated with these and unacceptable impacts in terms of human rights and sustainability. The possibility of migration as a response to climate change is still rarely broached in the literature on adaptation to climate change, perhaps because it is entirely outside the acceptable range of proposals (Orlove, 2005).

Box 17.8. Do voluntary or displacement migrations represent failures to adapt?

Migration by individuals or relocation of settlements have been discussed in various studies as a potential adaptive response option to climate change impacts when local environments surpass a threshold beyond which the system is no longer able to support most or all of the population. There has been, for example, discussion of the possibility that sea-level rise will make it impossible for human populations to remain on specific islands. For instance, New Zealand has been discussed as a possible site of relocation for the people of Tuvalu, a nation consisting of low-lying atolls in the western Pacific. Patel (2006) and Barnett (2005) argue that there would be enormous economic, cultural and human costs if large populations were to abandon their long-established home territories and move to new places. Sea-level rise impacts on the low-lying Pacific Island atoll states of Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tokelau and the Marshall Islands may, at some threshold, pose risks to their sovereignty or existence (Barnett, 2001). Barnett and Adger (2003) argue that this loss of sovereignty itself represents a dangerous climate change and that the possibility of relocation represents a limit of adaptation.

The ability to migrate as an adaptive strategy is not equally accessible to all, and decisions to migrate are not controlled exclusively by individuals, households, or local and state governments (McLeman, 2006). Studies in Asia and North America (Adger et al., 2002; Winkels, 2004; McLeman and Smit, 2006) show that strong social capital can obviate the need for relocation in the face of risk, and is also important in determining the success and patterns of migration as an adaptive strategy: the spatial patterns of existing social networks in a community influence their adaptation to climate change. Where household social networks are strong at the local scale, adaptations that do not lead to migration, or that lead to local-scale relocations, are more likely responses than long-distance migration away from areas under risk. Conversely, if the community has widespread social networks, or is part of a transnational community, then far-reaching migration is possible. McLeman and Smit (2006) show that a range of economic, social and cultural processes played roles in shaping migration behaviour and migration patterns in response to climate conditions and resulting long-term drought in rural eastern Oklahoma in the 1930s. While temporary migration has often been used as a risk management response to climate variability, permanent migration may be required when physical or ecological limits to adaptation have been surpassed.

Mendelsohn et al. (2007) examined correlations between incomes in rural districts in the United States and in Brazil, with parameters of present climate and physical parameters of agricultural productivity. They argued that climate affects agricultural productivity which, in turn, affects per capita income (even when this is defined as both farm and non-farm incomes for a district) and that climatic changes that reduce productivity may have direct consequences in rural poverty. Mendelsohn et al. (2007) therefore argue that climate change impacts in rural economies may make migration and relocation a necessary but undesirable adaptation. Finan and Nelson (2001), however, suggest that government policies in Brazil, such as rural retirement policies, have actually augmented household adaptive capacity and attracted young migrants back from cities. Thus migration can be influenced by government intervention. In the case of island states, Barnett (2005) argues that adaptation should already be deemed as unsuccessful if it has limited development opportunities.

Although scientific research indicates that forest ecosystems in northern Canada are among those regions at greatest risk from the impacts of climate change, the social dimensions of forest-dependent communities indicate both a limited community capacity and a limited potential to perceive climate change as a salient risk issue that warrants action. Climate change messages are often associated with environmentalism and environmentalists, who have been perceived by many residents of resource-dependent communities as an oppositional political force. Risk perceptions tend to be higher for women than for men, the higher concern levels of women may either be stifled or simply be unexpressed in a highly male-dominated environment (Davidson et al., 2003).

Anthropological research suggests that the scale and novelty of climate changes are not the sole determinants of degree of impact (Orlove, 2005). Societies change their environments, and thus alter their own vulnerability to climate fluctuations. The experience of development of the Colorado River Basin in the face of environmental uncertainty clearly illustrates that impacts and interventions can reverberate through the systems in ways that can only be partially traced and predicted (Pulwarty et al., 2005).

Accounting for future economic and social trends involves problems of indeterminacy (imperfectly understood structures and processes), discontinuity (novelty and surprise in social systems), reflexivity (the ability of people and organisations to reflect on and adapt their behaviour), and framing (legitimately-diverse views about the state of the world) (Berkhout et al., 2002; Pulwarty et al., 2003). Case studies reveal that there exists a diversity of local or traditional practices for ecosystem management under environmental uncertainty. These include rules for social regulation, mechanisms for cultural internalisation of traditional practices and the development of appropriate world views and cultural values (Pretty, 2003).

Social and cultural limits to adaptation are not well researched: Jamieson (2006) notes that a large segment of the U.S. population think of themselves as environmentalists but often vote for environmentally negative candidates. Although many societies are highly adaptive to climate variability and change, vulnerability is dynamic and likely to change in response to multiple processes, including economic globalisation (Leichenko and O’Brien, 2002). The Inuit, for example, have a long history of adaptation to changing environmental conditions. However, flexibility in group size and group structure to cope with climate variability and unpredictability is no longer a viable strategy, due to settlement in permanent communities. Also, memories and hunting narratives are appearing unreliable because of rapid change. Furthermore, there are emerging vulnerabilities, particularly among the younger generation through lack of knowledge transfer, and among those who do not have access to monetary resources to purchase equipment necessary to hunt in the context of changing conditions (Ford et al., 2006).